A defense attorney Tuesday accused Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin of forcing the Randy Steven Kraft murder trial to move along too fast because he believes that the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court will back up whatever he does.
Kraft attorney C. Thomas McDonald asked for a mistrial based on an angry retort a day earlier in which McCartin said he was “sick and tired” of any talk about appellate review of his more controversial decisions. The judge was upset that Kraft attorney James G. Merwin wanted to stop the trial in the late morning because he was not feeling well.
Merwin’s co-counsel, McDonald, said Tuesday that the judge’s comments “indicate to most observers that because there has been a change in the state Supreme Court, this court . . . is immune from appellate review . . . and can do whatever is necessary to move the case along.”
The judge chuckled at McDonald’s request for a mistrial, then denied it. The dispute took place in McCartin’s Santa Ana courtroom outside the jurors’ presence.
Kraft, now 43, is being tried on charges of murdering 16 young men in one of the most historic cases in California. Prosecutors have accused him of a total of 45 murders in Southern California, Oregon and Michigan.
Not all the disgruntlement in the Kraft case was in the courtroom. Kraft, who has filed previous complaints about his living conditions at the Orange County Jail, this week filed a new complaint, according to sources who asked not to be named. In the latest complaint, Kraft reportedly alleges that jail officials have denied him proper day room and shower privileges because of his daily court appearances.
Kraft, who has been in County Jail since his May 14, 1983, arrest, claims that the jail’s policies were not designed for someone who remains in custody that long.
At his trial Tuesday, Kraft sat quietly with his chin resting in his left hand as he listened to the dispute between his attorney and the judge.
McCartin, who is renowned in Orange County legal circles for both his dry wit and his quick anger, first got upset Monday morning when the Kraft lawyers asked him to hear a legal motion. The judge had asked the lawyers to file their motions on Fridays, when the jurors are not in court.
The judge refused to consider it but was irked that jurors were kept waiting for more than an hour.
Then, after less than an hour of testimony, Merwin became ill and said he could not proceed with cross-examining a prosecution, out-of-state witness concerning the 1980 death of 19-year-old Robert Wyatt Loggins Jr. That angered the judge, who asked McDonald to cross-examine the witness instead.
McDonald said he could not do it. He explained that the two lawyers had divided up the 16 murders equally and that the Loggins murder had been researched by Merwin.
McCartin threatened to force Merwin to stay on for the day despite his illness, but he finally relented and postponed the rest of the witness’s testimony until Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, McDonald was in court, but Merwin was not. He had made arrangements to see a doctor.
A much calmer McCartin said he did not regret any of his remarks about not letting the appellate court influence his decisions. He added that he was concerned about serious delays in the trial because of the uncertainty of Merwin’s status.
Although the judge had cooled down from the day before, McDonald was still upset. He accused the judge of “driving a wedge between Mr. Merwin and Mr. Kraft” because Merwin was now put in the position of defending his own health instead of just defending Kraft.
McCartin, known to verbally lambaste lawyers for much less, smiled and said he did not see such a wedge. The judge said he had known Merwin for “50 years” and admired him. However, the judge said he had noted earlier in the trial that Merwin was sweating profusely but did not follow up the judge’s suggestion that he see a doctor.
“I don’t know if Mr. Merwin will be out one day or one year, or what we’re looking at,” McCartin said.
The judge also criticized the defense lawyers for tardiness in filing some of their motions. McDonald’s response was that with a case involving 16 murders, such things have to be expected.
McCartin then took testimony the rest of the afternoon. But at the end of the day, he called a halt to the trial until next Monday to give Merwin time to recuperate. The judge apologized to the jurors and told them that “these things happen.”
McDonald told reporters later that Merwin had taken medication from a doctor but that his status won’t be known until later in the week.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan F. Brown, who kept quiet during most of the morning’s exchange, had hoped to complete testimony on Loggins and Donnie Crisel, the fifth and sixth victims in the case. But now both will have to be postponed to next week.